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Mainstream, VOL LI No 25, June 8, 2013

Tribute: Vina Mazumdar

Sunday 9 June 2013, by Neerja Chowdhury


Vina Mazumdar, who passed away at the age of 86 last week, sensitised a whole generation of women about their rights and roles in the 1970s and 1980s—and nudged many like me to question long accepted assumptions about ourselves. She, and her comrade-in-arms, lawyer Lotika Sarkar, as also Jai Chandiram, one of the pioneers of Doordarshan when it was set up—both of them also passed away recently—can truly be called independent India’s nation-builders.

I remember how often we, who were writing columns in national newspapers—Shahnaz Anklesaria Aiyer and I were doing regular columns on women’s issues in The States-man in the early eighties—beat a path to Vina Mazumdar’s door. She always had time for us. We would sit across the table, her shoulders would often be hunched, her short hair would bob up and down, as she reeled out facts and figures and concepts, gesticulating animatedly, often prefacing her remarks with her inimitable, “Arre baba”, and exuding an amazing verbal energy.

“Vinadi”, as she was universally known, empowered women—and policy-makers— with the tools necessary to wage—and win—battles that needed to be fought, making available hard information gleaned through rigorous studies to lend these fights a legitimacy. Women’s studies acquired a respect, thanks to her and many like her, and she was a pioneer when she set up what became a highly respected Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS) in the national Capital.

She represented the rise in post-independent India of educated and professional women, who were armed with analytical training to provide deeper insights and empirical evidence about the discrimination against women which was experientially felt but not so widely acknowledged.

Vina Mazumdar broke many ceilings during her chequered life—and this was not possible to do without being a rebel, which she was—but her seminal contribution, if one can call it that, was the 1975 Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India “Towards Equality”, which became a reference point on the status of women in India. Many publications about women have followed but there has not been a report like that ever since.

 “Towards Equality” was not just another report on different aspects of women’s status in society, about women’s unrecognised work, female infant mortality, child marriage, illiteracy, dowry, adverse sex ratio, violence against women, as the Report underscored how the development process had failed to alleviate the miseries of women.

The Report contributed in no small measure in creating a climate which triggered off the second phase of feminism in the country. The women’s movement worldwide had got an impetus in the seventies with the United Nations declaring 1975 as the International Women’s Year and 1975-1985 as the International Women’s Decade, with the UN push and funds giving a much-needed momentum to women’s activities.

By the early seventies, the early gains of the women’s movement in India—as far back as the 1920s legislature after legislature in India had enfranchised women, in sharp contrast to the unrelenting struggle women in the West had to fight for enfranchisement; and the ethos of the national movement had conferred on them equal rights, with the Constitution prohibiting discrimination based on sex—were petering out.

Vinadi used to tell a lovely story of how “Towards Equality” came to be written and became part of the public discourse. It is another example of how historical accidents have led to far-reaching decisions in the country, and how a group of convinced people can influence events.

The UN had sent a reminder to India in 1969 that it should send it a report on the status of women which member-states had promised, after such a declaration in the General Assembly. The Government of India had not moved on it, not clear which Ministry should be responsible for women. Finally, it was referred to the Ministry of Social Welfare, which was headed at the time by Dr Phulrenu Guha, and she recommended the constitution of a commission to review the position of women so that the report could be sent to the UN. In the meantime the 1971 elections took place, Guha lost, but Indira Gandhi came back to power and she decided to set up a committee to go into the whole question. One of her motivations was to give something by way of a reward to Shakuntala Masani, the estranged wife of Minoo Masani who had campaigned for her in the general elections. So she made Masani Member-Secretary of the Committee while Phulrenu Guha was made its chairperson. But Masani was not clued into the women’s issue and soon came to be replaced by Vina Mazumdar.

And here is when luck kicked in. At this time Siddharth Shankar Ray was sent to West Bengal as the Chief Minister and Nurul Hasan took charge of Education and Social Welfare as its Minister of State. A series of coincidences—Nurul Hasan heading the Ministry, Guha in-charge of the Committee, Vina Mazumdar its Member-Secretary and what is more J.P. Naik, founder member of the ICSSR, who happened to be Vina Mazumdar’s mentor, giving a virtual carte blanche to the Committee for the funding of research for the Report—led to the creation of a crack report, which shocked people, and kicked up a much-needed debate on women’s status in society.

As it turned out, the years that followed saw a series of pro-women laws being enacted, be it on equal remuneration at workplace, or marriage laws to provide safeguards to divorced women, or strengthening the provisions against rape, or the law to prohibit dowry, or the setting up of family courts for speedy settlement of matrimonial disputes, and the list is by no means an exhaustive one.

It was Nurul Hasan—and Vinadi used to say this frequently, that the “Towards Equality” Report would not have been possible without his unstinting support—who persuaded the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, to table it in Parliament. He obviously knew what he was doing. Knowing how the system and the bureau-cracies worked, he wanted to make sure that the Report was neither sabotaged nor put on the backburner, given the kind of data and picture it had revealed about the position of women in the country 27 years after independence. So he asked Vina Mazumdar to make only three copies of it, and he kept all three safely with him— after its submission to the government, and till it was tabled in Parliament. He also told Vinadi not to reveal its contents to anyone. As it turned out, even Indira Gandhi saw the Report only after it was tabled in Parliament. By that time it was in the public domain.

By the early eighties the women’s movement in India had been overtaken by the demand for quotas in legislative bodies, for while women were making their mark in every profession their representation in politics, which deter-mined the direction of public policy, was pathe-tically low.

Few remember that it was “Towards Equality” which brought the issue of quotas for women on the national radar, and this triggered off what I would call the third wave of feminism in the country. Though the main Report had ruled out reservation as the way forward for women, there was a dissenting note, authored by none other than Vina Mazumdar and Lotika Sarkar, making a persuasive case for reservations in legislative bodies.

Till then, and starting in the early part of the 20th century, Indian women had rejected reservations as the route to their empowerment. It was only in the seventies and really in the eighties and nineties that it became a loud demand, when women realised how systema-tically they had been kept out of the political system, and the decision-making structures at the top. Rajiv Gandhi gave a voice to this sentiment when he sought to enact the 64th Constitution Amendment to provide one-third reservation to women in Panchayats, now a reality, with several States going for 50 per cent quota for women in local bodies, and there is a large pool of women getting readied.

Though ailing for sometime, Vinadi must have been heartened by the way a large number of young women and men came out spontaneously on the streets, to protest against the gangrape of 23-year-old Nirbhaya in Delhi in December 2012, which compelled the government to bring in a stricter law for women’s safety. But it was also a defining moment when the women’s issue became a political issue—something Vina Mazumdar had striven for all her life.

The author is a senior journalist and political commentator whose columns regularly appear in different publications.

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